Going South, Coming North tells the story of Morristown

Morristown, Tennessee may not be the center of the global capitalism, but what has happened to it since NAFTA was implemented pretty much tells the story of the impact that NAFTA and today’s brave new world of unfettered and unregulated capitalism has had on workers on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Morristown: in the air and sun, a 2007 documentary film by Anne Lewis (a fellow TSEU member), tells the story of people who live in Morristown and how their lives have been altered by NAFTA.

Here’s how Anne describes her documentary:

Filmed between 1991 and 2006 and based primarily in the mountains of east Tennessee, Morristown explores the lived experiences of workers from Tennessee and Mexico who speak about their lives, work, disappointments, and hopes. These conversations are combined with scenes in Tennessee factories, fields, union halls, Mexican-owned stores, workers’ homes, city parks, and employment agencies. The documentary travels to factories and locations in Ciudad Juárez, Chihauhau, and Los Martínez, Guanajuato, Mexico. Morristown concludes with a stunning union victory in 2005-2006 among immigrant workers at a large poultry processing plant.”

To tell this story, Anne gathered and shot hours of video footage. But because of the constraints of documentary filmmaking, she had to whittle most of it out of the final version. Thinking that the footage that didn’t make it into the final version might be useful to labor and immigration activists and scholars, Anne and Fran Ansley, her humanities advisor on Morristown, recently published a multimedia essay entitled “Going South, Coming North: Migration and Union Organizing in Morristown, Tennessee” in Southern Spaces that makes available some of the information left out of Morristown.

The essay includes a narrative about the filming of Morristown, a summary of the film itself, video clips, and a list resources, links, and print material that should be useful for those who want to learn more about Morristown and the impact that  NAFTA has had on both sides of the border.

Morristown, located just south of the Virginia border, has been on both sides of the movement of capital and labor. In the 1930s and 1940s, local workers moved north looking for work in the industrial factories. When capital began moving some of these factories south to avoid dealing with unions, some found their way into Morristown.

Eventually capital sought even cheaper labor and began moving much of the work in Morristown across the Mexican border and into the maquiladoras that sprung up like grass after a thunder shower after NAFTA was enacted. But jobs weren’t the only thing that NAFTA exported; cheap agricultural products flooded the Mexican market displacing millions of Mexican farmers and farm workers. They made their way north looking for work, and a good number of them ended up in Morristown where some got jobs in construction, some in the local service industries, and some at a new poultry processing plant owned by Koch Foods.

The new arrivals weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, and Morristown spends some time interviewing locals about their fears and prejudices against the new immigrants. It also looks at a project that began nearly two decades ago to try to bridge the gap between immigrant and native workers in eastern Tennessee, an effort that led to cross border trips by some maquiladora workers to Tennessee and by some native Morristown workers to Reynosa, Mexico, home to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of maquiladoras.

Morristown also tells the story of a successful union organizing drive at Koch Foods. Like most poultry processing plants, the work at Koch is hard, the hours long, and worker safety only an afterthought for the bosses. These conditions led workers at Koch to seek out a union to help them organize. They found the Union of Food and Commercial Workers.

The organizing campaign took more than a year but eventually was successful. They campaign was marked a strong effort to build community support among native workers outside of the plant and a strong organizing committee among workers inside the plant that successfully resisted employer intimidation.

Both “Going South, Coming North” and Morristown present an alternative narrative about the lives of working people that differs markedly from the dominant narrative of today’s discourse. The dominant discourse describes a deep divide between people from different cultures, a divide that can’t really be overcome but only managed through individual acts of kindness and charity. “Going South, Coming North and Morristown on the other hand show that the economic machine that drives people apart can also bring people together when they join together to resist the machine.

California nurses vote “yes” for union

In a vote that was as much about ensuring quality patient care as about bread and butter job issues, Registered Nurses at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California last Thursday voted by a two to one margin in favor of union representation. After a bitter battle in which the employer tried to harass and intimidate union supporters, RNs voted 269 to 149 in favor of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA/NNU).

“It’s a victory for nurses. It’s a victory for our community and patient care. It’s a victory for everybody in our community who’s  going to come to work here, to have surgery here, to recuperate here, they’re going to have excellent, improved patient care,” said Elizabeth Baker-Wade, an RN at St. John’s.

The union organizing campaign started five years ago when RNs at St. John’s contacted CNA/NNU to express their concerns that St. John’s was endangering patient care by not adhering to California’s strict RN to patient ratio standard and that the hospital’s compensation and retirement plans were substandard.

Largely due to the efforts of nurses in CNA, California passed a law in 1999 that set “minimum, specific numerical nurse-to-patient ratios for acute-care, acute psychiatric, and specialty hospitals.” Nurses fought for this law because they saw first hand the impact that under staffing had on patient care. Their observations have been supported by more than 60 rigorous studies showing that “hospital understaffing results in more patient deaths, plus more preventable complications like pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and medication errors.”

Since the law went into effect in 2004, the nurse-to-patient ratio standards have improved health care. One study conducted by Health Services Research in 2010 found that “hospital nurse staffing ratios mandated in California are associated with lower mortality and nurse outcomes predictive of better nurse retention in California.”

However, hospitals have been fighting the ratio standards since they became law. They almost succeeded when then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004  at the request of hospital owners suspended implementation of the newly passed law. But a court eventually ruled against Gov. Schwarzenegger allowing the ratio standards to go into effect.

More recently, the CNA/NNU organizing campaign at St. John’s hinged largely around giving RNs a voice on the job to ensure that the hospital follows the ratio standards. The RNs organizing campaign was met by “excessive aggression,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of CNA/NNU.

The National Labor Relations Board charged the hospital with taking a number of ant-union actions, including spying on union supporters, interrogating union supporters, expelling off-duty, pro-union nurses, who were talking to other nurses about the union, from hospital property, and preventing nurses from wearing  ribbons that read, “RNs for Safe Patient Care.”

St. Johns is owned by the Sisters of Charity Leavenworth Health Systems based in Lenexa, Kansas, which incorporated in 1972 and owns hospitals in Kansas, Colorado, Montana, and California. While the role of the Catholic Church in running the hospital chain has greatly diminished since its incorporation, the hospital system still likes to tout its relationship with the Church.

Unfortunately, the corporation chose to ignore one of the tenets of the Church’s social doctrine that holds that workers have the right to join unions. During the organizing campaign, a number of religious and community supporters of the nurses tried in vain to remind administrators at St. John’s about the Church’s position on workers’ rights.

The pro-union vote came just six weeks after the nurses filed a petition with the NLRB for a union representation election, but the union victory was not an overnight success. It took years of organizing, resisting intimidation, and staying focused on the overall goal of improving patient care.

“This was the most wonderful, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was harder than giving birth, (but) it’s so worth it. ” said Saint John’s RN Lori Hammond.

“I’ve been here for 22 and a half years. I was born in the old St. John’s. This was a yes vote for patients, for fair treatment, for what we’ve gone without for a long time. I’m happy,” said St. John’s RN Donna Schonlaw.

GE, unions begin contract negotiations

Contract negotiations between GE and its two largest unions, UE and CWA-IUE, got underway on May 24 and May 23 respectively. The themes of the two sides’ opening statements are examples of how wide the gap is between labor and capital today–perhaps the widest it has been in 70 years.

John Gritti, speaking for GE at the UE negotiations, emphasized competitiveness and how demands of the market will require concessions from workers. John Hovis, speaking for UE, talked about productivity gains made by GE workers and their right to share in the fruit of their own productivity.

If anyone missed the point. Gritti, who leads the company’s negotiations with UE , told union negotiators that “we will discuss competitiveness often over the next four weeks.”

Gritti pointed out that with unemployment hovering around 9 percent GE workers are facing stiff competition in labor markets. GE recently posted job openings in two of its plants. In Louisville, where GE makes appliances, 10,000 people applied for 300 new jobs; in Erie, Pennsylvania, where GE makes locomotives, 5,000 people applied for 100 jobs. These responses lead GE to believe that their current wage and benefit package is more than adequate to attract new employees.

Competition in the markets for GE products, according to Gritti, is even stiffer, and the volatile nature of these markets means that the company can’t count on its backlog of orders to continue. To keep GE’s prices competitive, GE workers must be willing to accept stagnant wages and cuts to their pension and health care benefits.

GE proposes that the unions accept GE’s high deductible health care plan, which it has already imposed on its non-union exempt workers. High deductible plans require workers to pay thousands of dollars in health care expenses before the insurance plan starts paying for any care.

GE also wants to bar newly hired union workers from participating in the company’s defined benefit pension plan, which provides a guaranteed benefit upon retirement. Currently non-union new hires are not allowed to join the defined benefit plan; instead, they must join a defied contribution plan, whose value is tied to the ups and downs of the stock market.

Gritti said that  other companies have stopped providing pensions that guarantee a lifetime benefit, and GE wants to do the same because of “the potential volatility and unpredictability that these plans can bring to a company’s bottom line.”

Gritti disingenuously warned that “unsustainable wage and benefit plans” forced GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy, ignoring the more salient fact that bad management decisions and dicey loans and poor investment decisions made by the companies’ financial services divisions played a bigger role in their plunging bottom line.

Speaking for UE, General President John Hovis said that the increased productivity of GE workers has made a lot of money for the company and its investors, but increased productivity has not translated into better living standards. For this contract, UE would be seeking increased benefits, better pay, and an end to the company’s two-tiered  night shift differentials and  progression schedules.

“We come to the table with proposals of our own,” Hovis said. “Confident that in light of the indisputable fact that GE  workers remain among the best and most productive in the entire world, we should be rewarded as such.”

Hovis said that GE’s gross profits for 2010 totaled $14.2 billion ranking it the 6th largest among Fortune 500 companies and that recently GE rewarded stockholders with their third dividend increase in the past years. Last year GE workers produced an average of $42,000 per worker in net profit.

The UE and CWA-IUE contracts expire on June 19, which gives the two sides about four weeks to work through these difficult issues. GE will negotiate local contracts with workers in other unions.

Hovis ended his opening remarks by calling GE’s attempt to seek concessions when the company and its investors are making huge profits an act of “overreaching,” which makes reaching an agreement that “is reasonable, respectful, and mutually beneficial” for both parties difficult. “To say the next four weeks will be challenging is an understatement,” Hovis said. “We in UE will put forth our best effort at finding a way to avoid having these negotiations end in a place I believe neither party desires. We sincerely hope the company will do the same.”

Judge rules against Wisconsin anti-worker law

A Wisconsin circuit judge in Madison today ruled that the Wisconsin Senate violated the state’s Open Meetings law when it passed a law last March that deprives most Wisconsin public sector workers of their right to collective bargaining. Based on her ruling, Judge Maryann Sumi issued a permanent injunction to halt implementation of the law.

“This morning Judge Sumi upheld what we knew in the beginning, that the law stripping hundreds of thousands of public employees of their rights was passed illegally, in the dead of the night through a back door maneuver,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO.  “The people have been clear from day one; they have stood together in the streets of Madison and in the streets around the state to express that this law is too extreme for Wisconsin.  Today, democracy was upheld.  We hope that the Supreme Court will consider the careful review conducted by Judge Sumi and support her conclusion.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hold a hearing on June 6 to determine whether it will consider an appeal challenging Judge Sumi’s decision. Republicans hold a majority of seats on the state Supreme Court.

Judge Sumi last March issued a temporary injunction that temporarily halted implementation of the bill after a suit was filed charging that the state Senate had violated state Open Meeting laws when a Senate committee convened an emergency hearing on the bill.

Gov. Scott Walker in February sent a budget repair bill to the Wisconsin Legislature that in addition to increasing the amount that state employees contributed to ther health and pension plans took away the right of most state, county, and municipal workers to bargain collectively. It also barred the state from collecting dues for unions, a practice performed by most employers whose workers belong to a union, and required public sector unions to hold representation elections every year.

Scott’s so-called budget repair bill set off a wave protest that saw the state Capitol occupied by union members and their supporters;  hundreds of thousands of people also took to the streets for a month-long protest against Gov. Walker’s anti-worker proposal.

Fourteen Democratic state senators left Wisconsin to prevent the quorum needed to pass Walker’s proposal. On March 9, lawmakers following Gov. Scott’s orders stripped the budget repair bill of just about everything except the language that barred public sector collective bargaining. Doing so,  reduced the quorum standard to a simple majority.

The House quickly passed the stripped down version of the bill and sent it to the Senate. That night at about 4:20 p.m. a Senate committee posted a public notice that it would hold a hearing on the bill. At 6:00 p.m. the committee began the meeting. Sen Peter Barca, the lone Democratic senator at the hearing, objected that the meeting was in violation of the Open Meetings law because the law requires that public notices for emergency meetings like this one be posted at least two hours before the meeting convenes.

Judge Sumi ruled that by ignoring the state’s Open Meetings requirements, lawmakers rendered their subsequent action invalid. “The legislators were understandably frustrated by the stalemate on March 9, but that does not justify jettisoning compliance with the Open Meetings law,” wrote Judge Sumi in her ruling. “Moreover, if there is any doubt as to the committee’s awareness of its violation, one need only read the transcript of the committee’s March 9 proceedings.”

Scott Walker and the Republicans broke the law that night,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.  “This is a democracy, not a dictatorship, and Judge Sumi’s decision today makes it final that the union busting bill was passed illegally and will not stand.”

The Civil Wars in US Labor: A Review

In The Civil Wars in US Labor published by Haymarket Books, Steve Early tells the story of an internal upheaval that cost the labor movement dearly in blood, sweat, and treasure. It affected millions of workers and will continue to do so in the years to come, but most of us know little or nothing about it.

The book covers a two-year period between 2008 and 2010 when SEIU members fought each other for control of locals, SEIU and other unions fought each other to represent workers who were already organized, and SEIU and other unions sabotaged each others campaigns to organize non-union workers. A truce has stopped the war; the body count is ongoing.

The war began when former SEIU president Andy Stern began implementing his vision for a new labor movement. For Stern, union growth was paramount even if it meant making concessionary deals with employers. Some of his opponents balked at change and were leery of organizing, but others complained that Stern’s organizing-at-any-price strategy lowered contract standards and his top-down management style undermined union democracy.

Most wars have a winner and a loser; this one had only losers. Take for instance, those involved in the fight between SEIU’s leadership and the United Healthcare Workers (UHW), a 150,000 member SEIU local in the San Francisco Bay area. UWH president Sal Rosselli had been an open critic of Stern, arguing that Stern allowed contract standards to erode. He also wanted the rank-and-file to have more input in contract negotiations.

When UHW leadership and members opposed Stern’s decision to move 65,000 UHW home care workers into a local based in Southern California, SEIU put the local in receivership, fired local staff, and removed local leaders. UWH responded by breaking away from SEIU, creating the National United Healthcare Workers (NUHW), and fighting SEIU to represent workers it represented before trusteeship. For the right to represent workers who were already organized, both unions spent $30 million, money that could have been much better spent organizing the unorganized or fighting employer attacks.

A fight with SEIU’s Change to Win partner UNITE HERE cost even more. Stern grew impatient with UNITE HERE for not organizing more workers. When UNITE HERE president John Wilhelm resisted Stern’s advice to seek strategic partnerships with employers that would allow more access to unorganized workers, Stern and former UNITE president Bruce Raynor set up Workers United and began raiding UNITE HERE shops. The eventual divorce that settled the dispute between UNITE HERE and SEIU cost about $40 million.

There were other losers. Low-paid home care workers in Southern California had their local’s treasury looted by a Stern appointee, put in charge of the local because of his loyalty to Stern’s program rather than his competence or integrity. Member input and participation went by the wayside when Stern put more than 80 locals in trusteeship, some because of mismanagement but many more because local leaders didn’t back Stern’s program. Organizing campaigns like the one at Hyatt Hotels received less attention and others were scuttled because of inter-union fights.

The biggest loser was David Smith, an SEIU member from Detroit. He boarded a bus to Ann Arbor to participate in a demonstration against union busting, or so he was told by SEIU staff. The demonstration was really against Rose Ann DeMoro, president of the National Nurses Organizing Committee, who had spoiled an SEIU organizing drive in Ohio and was speaking at a Labor Notes conference in An Arbor. SEIU staff led a charge to interrupt DeMoro’s speech. The charge led to a melee. The excitement was too much for Smith’s heart. It failed. He died.

Early glosses over DeMoro’s questionable role in Ohio as he does a similar action in Arizona by UNITE HERE. Future accounts of this civil war may correct this oversight. But Early never claims to be disinterested. In fact, he is candid about his viewpoint as a partisan observer.

For his sources, he relies heavily on interviews with participants in the struggles he describes. By and large, those he interviewed were Stern opponents. To Early’s credit, he tried to interview Stern and other SEIU leaders; most turned him down. That was a mistake because Early did a good job of allowing pro-Stern leaders to present their side when they agreed to talk to him.

Tom Balanoff president of Local 1 in Chicago and his staff presented a good case for why call centers, or Member Resource Centers as they’re known in SEIU, were a good way for his local to handle grievances and other member services. Call centers are one of Stern’s innovations; Early doesn’t like them.

Early ends on an upbeat note. It’s possible, Early says, that the fallout from SEIU’s top-down approach to union building will spark a backlash that will encourage more union democracy and more member participation and initiative. But before he’s done, Early engages in a bit of red baiting by comparing SEIU’s leadership to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He tries to cover himself by invoking the work of Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollantai, two early 20th century revolutionary communists. But this particular criticism sounds too much like those of right-wingers and their liberal counterparts when they attack those of us on the left.

Explosion at plant making iPads kills three in China

An explosion last Friday at a Chinese factory that makes Apple iPads killed three workers and injured 15 others. The factory, which employees about 100,000 and is located in Chengdu, is owned by Foxconn Technology Group, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision Industries Ltd, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic equipment. Foxconn in China also manufactures electronic devises for HP and Dell.

The blast took place in the polishing department. A preliminary investigation by the company blames the explosion on combustible dust in an air duct. A report issued May 6 by a Hong Kong-based group called Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) cited the build up of aluminium dust at the Chengdu plant as a critical concern of Foxconn workers  interviewed for the report.

Foxconn gained notoriety last year after it installed anti-suicide nets around worker dormitories at its Shenzhen plant after seven workers in separate incidents in May leapt to their deaths from dormitory windows. In all, 13 workers at the plant have committed suicide since the plant opened.

The deaths put pressure on Apple and Foxconn to take steps to improve conditions at Foxconn plants. Some improvements were made; for example, Foxconn raised worker pay, but according to SACOM’s report, conditions at Foxconn plants remain grim.

“Life at Foxconn is work, sleep, eat,” one male Chengdu worker told SACOM investigators. The workday begins at 8:30 in the morning and is supposed to end by 6:20, but workers are often forced to work overtime. The report says that Foxconn workers work about 80 to 100 hours of overtime a month, much more than the 36 allowed by the Chinese labor law.

The SACOM report also says that although the basic wage for Foxconn workers is 9 percent higher than the Chinese minimum wage, it is still well below what SACOM estimates to be the local living wage. In Chengdu, the basic monthly wage is 1300 yuan. The living wage, the amount needed to survive beyond the subsistence level, is, according to SACOM, 2600 yuan.

The lack of health and safety at the Foxconn plants is also a problem. “Occupational health and safety issues at Chengdu are alarming,” reads the report issued two weeks before the explosion. Workers work with dangerous chemicals but receive no training for how to handle them.

Workers also said that the plant’s ventilation system is poor. “I’m breathing in dust at Foxconn just like a vacuum cleaner,” said a male worker. “My nostrils are totally black every day.” Workers in the polishing department, where the May 20 explosion took place, complained they were always breathing in aluminum dust because the ventilation system was so ineffective. Workers in the milling machine department had the same complaint.

Perhaps the worst thing about working at Foxconn is that workers “feel helpless (about bringing) change,” which in turn leads to the feeling of resignation and despair. There is no grievance procedure or other means for workers to express their concerns about safety and other work related problems. There is no way for the workers to keep from being forced to work overtime.

Last January worker frustration in Chengdu broke out when Foxconn miscalculated pay for many workers, a common complaint according SACOM. Workers began throwing bottles and rubbish out their dormitory windows to express their rage. Police were called in, and 20 were arrested. Foxconn asserts that the disturbance was a clash between two groups of workers. SACOM and the workers it interviewed blamed the company’s wage miscalculation.

SACOM and its international partners have called on Apple and Foxconn to improve conditions at the latter’s plants. The suicides last May spurred some action, but most of it was a PR blitz aimed at showing the world’s press that conditions at Foxconn were humane. The explosion seems to belie this claim.

Saudis balk at paying domestic workers minimum wage

The Philippine government said that it would suspend the processing of labor contracts with Saudi Arabian employers who hire domestic workers because the Saudis refuse to pay Filipino workers the $400 a month Philippine minimum wage. The Philippine government also wants assurances that Saudi employers provide humane working conditions for Filipina domestic workers.

About two weeks ago, the Saudis sent a delegation to the Philippines to negotiate the dispute, but talks recently broke off. The Saudis want the Philippine government to alter a requirement in labor contracts that Saudi employers must sign before hiring Filipina domestic workers. The contract requires foreign employers to pay the Philippine minimum wage of $400 a month. The Saudis wanted to reduce this amount to $200 a month.

The Saudis also balked at language in the contracts that requires employers of domestic workers to provide family information and the layout of the residence where the domestic worker will be working. The Philippine government requires this information to ensure that workers will be treated humanely.

Even though talks have broken down, the Saudis want the Philippine government to continue to process the employment contracts so that they can continue to hire Philippine domestic workers. “They continue to press us not to impose the ban (on processing work contracts), citing their political role in peace negotiations in the southern Philippines (with Muslim rebels) and threaten to cut our oil supplies,” said Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz.

One of the reasons that the Philippine government has stopped processing the labor contracts is that Saudi employers and Philippine employee recruitment companies often collude to circumvent the contracts. In some cases, a Saudi employer will require a domestic worker to sign a new contract that reduces her wage to $200 a month after the worker arrives in Saudi Arabia. The Philippine government is willing to start processing the contracts, but it wants assurances that the terms of the contract will be respected.

A report issued earlier this year by a Philippine government investigation mission found that in addition to receiving wages below the Philippine minimum wage, Filipina domestic workers are also subject to abuse and inhumane treatment by their employers. The report says that non-payment of wages is a constant complaint from Filipina domestic workers in Saudia Arabia. Of those interviewed by the investigation team, 26 percent said that they weren’t paid for months on end.

Those interviewed also said that beatings were common and some said that they were kept under lock and key. “Slavery was abolished in 1962 (in Saudi Arabia),” reads the report. “But customs are apparently hard to overcome. Domestic workers continue to be treated as slaves in royal and aristocratic households, and the behavior is reproduced by those lower in the social hierarchy.”

A number of Filipina domestic workers also report that they have been the victim of rape, sometimes within the household where they work, sometmes outside of it. “Many domestic workers are cast in very oppressive conditions, . . . where physical abuse and rape are rampant,” says the report. “It is fair to say that the (investigators) found that the conditions faced by domestic workers to be worse than they had imagined.”

There are between 100,000 and 150,000 Filipina domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Until recently, the Philippine government processed about 13,000 domestic worker contracts with Saudi employers a year. Of those, 9,000 were renewals of contracts that expired, the rest were new contracts.

Vincinte Cabe, the labor attache at the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah, said that his government would like to reconvene the negotiations with the Saudis, but he said that the Saudis must agree to protections that afford Philippine immigrant workers the same rights and protections they have in their home country.

Report holds Massey Energy responsible for deadly explosion

A report released yesterday by independent investigators blames Massey Energy owner of the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virgina for the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. According to the report, Massey “operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking.” Upper Big Branch was a non-union mine.

The investigation team was led by Davitt McAteer, former Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Clinton. The investigation was requested by Sen. Joe Manchin, who at the time of the explosion was governor of West Virginia.

“We in the UMWA hear about these types of conditions all the time from former and current Massey miners,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. “It is somewhat surprising, though heartening, to see a discussion of it in this report.”

The report suggests that at Massey production, and thus profit, was paramount; safety was a dim afterthought. Production, not safety, was monitored scrupulously. A purchasing agent at Upper Big Branch received production reports detailing the amount of coal produced each half hour and relayed these reports to upper management at the highest level, including the office of Don Blankenship, Massey’s CEO.

When production was interrupted to deal with a safety hazard or to fix broken equipment, there was always pressure to get the coal back on the conveyor belts that brought it to the surface. On the day of the explosion, production had been interrupted by flooding caused by malfunctioning water pumps. Survivors of the blast also complained that the ventilation system was not working properly.

Massey contends that the explosion was the result of an unavoidable accident. Immediately after the accident, a rumor was floated suggesting that an earthquake or, perhaps, a bolt of lightning from a nearby thunderstorm caused the explosion. A few weeks after the explosion, Massey officials said that the blast was an act of God: A  huge, unpreventable fissure in the mine floor suddenly released an enormous amount of methane, which then ignited and exploded.

The report, however, dismisses this theory as little more than a legal strategy designed to avoid liability. Instead, the report finds that the blast could have been prevented if the company had followed basic safety procedures.

The explosion occurred when a coal mining machine shearing away coal from a longwall released methane gas. A spark from the machine caused the methane to ignite, which in turn caused coal dust in the air to explode.

It’s common for small pockets of methane to be released during the mining process, and these releases can be ignited by the sparks that the machine makes while gnawing coal away from the interspersed rock. That’s why these machines have water sprays close to the cutting blade that douse sparks. Some of the water sprays on the 25-year old shearing machine, however, were not working.

Keeping coal dust to minimum also reduces the chances of a spark igniting a catastrophic explosion. A well-designed ventilation system can remove coal dust and dangerous gases from a mine. But the report finds that Upper Big Bend’s ventilation system was poorly designed and poorly maintained.

In January 2010, three months before the explosion, a federal mine inspector noted Upper Big Branch management showed a “reckless disregard” for worker safety “when they told a foreman to ignore a citation the mine received for faulty ventilation.”

An autopsy of the deceased miners further suggests that the mine’s ventilation system was inadequate. Of the 29 miners who died, 24 had sufficient remains that allowed an autopsy. Of the 24, 17, or 71 percent, showed evidence of Black Lung disease. The national average for Black Lung among miners is 3.4 percent; it’s 7.6 percent in West Virginia. Coal dust is the main cause of Black Lung.

In addition to causing Black Lung, coal dust is highly flammable, but it can be rendered inert and less flammable when dusted with crushed limestone. This procedure is called rock dusting. The report says that a mine as big as Upper Big Branch should be dusted once a day on each of the three shifts.

Upper Big Branch had only a two-man rock dusting crew. One of the crew members said that they only dusted about three days a week because they were often called away to work on other jobs. When they dusted, the machine they used often broke down because it was old.

At Upper Big Branch, there was no union. There was no independent safety committee to hold management accountable for worker safety. There was only the imperative to dig as much coal as possible as quickly as possible.

Bangladesh worker advocates face prison; Walmart urged to help free them

Last year while Walmart was making a profit of $14.3 billion, most garment workers in Bangladesh, who make clothes sold by Walmart and other Western retailers, were working for the Bangladesh minimum wage of $24 a month, making them the world’s lowest paid garment workers.  When a sharp rise in the global commodities market caused food prices in Bangladesh to soar, some of these workers demanded an increase the minimum wage, and some decided that they needed a union to fight for better wages.

Workers at Nassa Global Wear, which makes clothes for Walmart, JC Penney, Sears, and other Western stores, turned to the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS) to help them organize a union. The owners of Nassa, ex-military officers with close ties to the government, had BCWS organizers arrested.

They were re-arrested in September and falsely accused of attempted murder, assault, and other crimes. They will go to trial soon, and if convicted could face a life sentence. Worker support organizations around the world have organized a campaign to pressure Walmart, the largest buyer of Bangladeshi produced garments, to use its influence with its suppliers to drop their charges and to allow labor rights advocates to operate freely.

The BCWS organizers arrested were Kalpona Akhter, Babut Akhter, and Aminal Islam, all three of whom are now free on bail. Their ordeal began on June when Babut Akhter and Islam were arrested after they visited a Nassa factory to talk to workers about organizing a union. They were held for 30 days, interrogated, and tortured.

In the meantime, Bangladeshi workers were demanding an increase to the minimum wage from $24 a month to $72 a month, the amount it would take to bring wages back up to subsistence level. On July 30, the government announced that it would increase the minimum wage to $43 a month.

Disappointed workers, especially those in the garment industry, took to the streets to protest the decision. Police trying to control the protest beat and arrested some demonstrators, which infuriated workers and more days of protest followed.

Protests continued through the middle of August but finally dissipated. Hoping to quell further protests, the government began arresting those it suspected of being leaders, including Kalpona Akhter, Babut Akhter, and Islam. Three of the charges against them including assault and destruction of property, were instigated by Nassa. Other garment companies and the police instigated other charges.  The three were subsequently released on bail in September.

While workers considered the minimum wage inadequate, factory owners thought that it was too much. When the law became effective at the end of November, some refused to implement it, setting off further worker protests. On December 12, Bangladeshi workers again took to the streets. This time, the police responded more violently, killing four workers. Other labor leaders including Moshefu Misha of the Garment Workers Unity Forum were arrested and held without charges.

Two days later, a fire at the Ha-Meem Group garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, killed 29 workers and injured 200 others. The Jewish Daily Forward of New York liken the fire to the New York City Triangle factory fire in 1911 that killed 146 mostly Jewish immigrant workers.

In New York, the Triangle factory fire led to the unionization of the New York garment sweatshops and subsequently safer working conditions and better pay for workers. But in Bangladesh, the government and the garment manufacturers not only continue to resist unionization, they have elevated their resistance by threatening to imprison union organizers like the Akhters and Islam.

The government and garment manufacturers have taken this hard line because the low wages paid to garment workers is what makes Bangladeshi garments competitive in the world market. Retailers like Walmart encourage the drive to suppress wages and working conditions by constantly demanding lower prices from its suppliers.

That’s why organizations like Jobs with Justice are demanding that Walmart act now by  telling its suppliers like Nassa that have instigated false charges against labor leaders to drop the charges. Walmart should also demand that officers guilty of torture should be held accountable and the government and employers  allow labor rights groups like the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity to operate freely.

Banks got bailed out, people got sold out

Joined by an inflatable banker pig and fat cat, about 700 union members and supporters demonstrated at the M&I Bank shareholder meeting at New York City’s Time Square. The workers were demanding that M&I executives be held accountable for their part in causing the Great Recession and for using taxpayer money to fund right-wing politicians like Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

“All across the country, we are standing up against the banks that take taxpayer dollars then use it to help elect politicians who attack workers,” said a fire fighter, who traveled from Wisconsin to demonstrate against M&I. He was joined by other Wisconsin public sector workers and members of a number of New York local unions including the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, Transport Workers Union, SEIU, AFSCME, CWA, Teamsters, and others.

M&I is a large regional bank anchored in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Despite its regional nature, it helped create the banking crisis that led to the Great Recession, which cost millions of workers their jobs, put an enormous strain on state and local treasuries that caused more layoffs and pay cuts, and led to a spate of worker pay cuts and benefit reductions in the private sector.

M&I’s risky investments caused the bank to lose billions of dollars. It was saved from bankruptcy by a bailout from the US government. After receiving the bailout money, executives with M&I donated heavily to the campaign of Gov. Walker, who in turn blamed public sector workers for Wisconsin’s budget shortfall and used this as an excuse to take away their right to bargain collectively.

In 2007, M&I was riding high. It had been a stodgy old bank that came into being before Wisconsin became a state. Management had always adhered to a conservative investment strategy until a new breed, led by CEO Mark Furlong, rose to power. New management began to invest heavily in mortgage-back securities.

The new investment strategy paid off at first. Profits shot up; the bank stock price rose to an all time high of $38 a share. Unfortunately, many of the bank’s mortgage-back securities were based on mortgages in Florida and Arizona, two of the states where the housing bubble burst first and hardest.

The bank was soon left holding a bunch of worthless paper, which ate away profits. M&I lost $2 billion in 2008, $758 million in 2009, and $515 million in 2010. In fact, M&I hasn’t turned a profit in the last 10 quarters, ending the last quarter with a $142 million loss.

The bank’s losses were so heavy that they only thing that kept it afloat was the $1.3 billion bailout money it received from the federal government. In addition to paying for normal operating expenses, the bailout money was used to pay salaries for CEO Furlong and other top executives.

They in turn, used some of their compensation to donate $54,000 to Gov. Walker’s election campaign. Gov. Walker repaid them by deflecting criticism away from them and other bankers and directing it toward teachers, health care workers, and other public sector workers.

While M&I continues to bleed money, its top executives have been fortunate enough to find another bailout partner. M&I was recently bought out by the Montreal-based BMO Harris Bank. The shareholders met in New York to approve the buyout Tuesday. As a result of the buyout, M&I’s top executives will receive golden parachutes worth $71 million. Furlong’s cut will be $18 million, and he gets a new job as head of BMO Harris in Chicago.

Wisconsin labor unions have been urging people with accounts at M&I to close their accounts. Taking the lead was the Wisconsin AFL-CIO which closed its M&I account last week.

Angry union members outside the shareholders’ meeting in New York pretty much summed up the feelings of a lot of people when they chanted, “Banks got bailed out, people got sold out.”

Connecticut nursing home workers win strike

Workers at four Connecticut nursing homes on Monday returned to work more than a year after they went on strike. They won a new three-year contract that calls for a modest raise, will receive lump sum payments totaling more than $500,000, protected their jobs from replacement workers, and kept their union intact.

“This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do–and the most worthwhile,” said April Grey a certified nursing assistant at one of the nursing homes. “We fought for ourselves and our families, but we fought hard for our residents (of the nursing homes) and our communities, and for justice. We persisted against all odds–and we won.”

The strike began in April 2010 after the workers’ union, the New England Health Care Employees Union SEIU District 1199, and the nursing homes’ owner Spectrum Healthcare failed to reach an agreement on a new contract. The evidence strongly suggests that the company was trying to break the union.

Prior to the strike, Spectrum management at the four nursing homes engaged in a spate of firings and suspensions. It appeared to the workers and their union that the company was targeting union activists to intimidate other workers and weaken support for the union. Four months after the strike began, investigators from the NLRB agreed and charged the company with unfair labor practices for firing and suspending workers “because (they) joined and assisted the union and . . . to discourage other employees from engaging in these activities.”

During negotiations for the new contract, Spectrum management demanded concessions from the union that it knew would be hard for workers to accept. Spectrum wanted to reduce pay for injured workers working light duty assignments. “The worst thing is the light-duty pay,” nursing assistant Sue Dargiewicz told the Connecticut Post during the strike.  “If you’re injured on the job, they want to pay us $10 an hour flat (for light duty work), and get the rest from worker’s comp, however you can get it.” Dargiewicz said that light duty proposal would mean a 50 percent pay cut for her and that workers compensation for anybody still working was unlikely.

Spectrum also wanted to tie future salaries to the state Medicaid rate paid to nursing homes, so that if the rate got cut, workers would be the ones absorbing the impact of lower rates. Additionally, the company wanted to eliminate three holidays.

After the strike began, Spectrum moved quickly to hire permanent replacement workers, which in effect told the 400 strikers that they no longer had jobs at the nursing homes. But the strikers held firm. After 100 days on strike, the Connecticut Post  reported that hundreds of strikers were still manning picket lines at the four nursing homes from 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight.

Strikers received support from other unions and community groups. A Solidarity Caravan originating in New Haven that visited all the strike sites was supported by the American Federation of Teachers, the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council, and other community and labor groups. Other solidarity actions were held during the strike.

Family members of nursing home residents also supported the strikers. Many fraternized with strikers on the picket lines, and some told strikers that their family members’ care had deteriorated since the replacement workers began working.

Five months after the strike began, the union made an unconditional offer to return to work, a tactical manuever designed to make the company take the strikers back and fire the replacement workers or face further unfair labor practice charges. When the company reinstated only a select number of strikers, the union filed another unfair labor complaint.

The NLRB consolidated the unfair labor charges, and began holding hearings on them in February. The hearings were still in progress in May when the union and company reached a final agreement. The agreement returns all strikers to work including 14 union activists fired prior to the strike, provides a 6 percent pay raise over three years, increases company pension contributions by 0.5 percent, provides a lump sum payment of $150,000 for lost back wages to 14 fired workers and another $395,000 lump sum payment to the employees’ pension fund. Workers also retain the three holidays.  The contract agreement ends the unfair labor practice hearings.

“They told us we were permanently replaced, and we’d never be back,” said Valery Johnson, a cook at one of the nursing homes after learning of the agreement. “Yet On May 16th, we’ll return to our positions, caring for the residents we’ve missed so much, with strength and unity in our hearts.”

State of Emergency leads to Week of Action in California

Over the last three years, public services in California have been decimated by budget cuts. Unless action is taken to extend taxes set to expire soon, there will be more cuts. That’s why a coalition of groups led by the California Teachers Association, has initiated a State of Emergency Campaign. The campaign designated May 9-13 as a Week of Action to build support saving state services and public education by extending the taxes.

During the week, dozens of rallies, demonstrations, town hall meetings were held all across the state. The week ends with four regional demonstrations and a rally at the state Capitol in Sacramento where hundreds of volunteers will stage a sit-in.

“We are living in a state of emergency,” said David A. Sanchez, president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association. “Educators, parents and community leaders are fighting back against state budget cuts that are decimating our schools, public safety and health care services. To protect essential public services, the Legislature must finish the job of resolving the state budget crisis by extending current tax rates legislatively. Time is running out for our students and our communities.”

California is facing a $15 billion deficit. Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat who has already cut about $8 billion from the budget, proposed legislation that would allow California voters the opportunity to vote on extending taxes that will soon expire. Extending the taxes would generate $9 billion in revenue and save public services from further cuts.

Republicans, however, have blocked votes on legislation needed to authorize the referendum. The Legislature could also extend the taxes, but it would take a two-thirds vote to do so, which would require a handful of Republican support. So far no Republican has been willing to support the tax extension.

Without the tax extension, funding for public education will be cut by another $4 billion. State spending on public education has already been cut by $20 billion over the last three years.

At one of the Week of Action events held in the Berryessa Union School District, located in the northeast foothills area of San Jose, the president of California Teachers Association Berryessa, Maria Smith, explained the local impact of the cuts. “Our current contract states a 24:1 student/teacher ratio,” Smith said. “Due to the budget deficit, the school board members are proposing an increase of 30:1.” Smith said that 99 teachers in the district have already received pink slips in anticipation of the budget cuts.

On Wednesday, a “well-practiced” drill team organized by the State of Emergency Campaign marched into the Capitol waving fake dollar bills and chanting “don’t pass the buck,” aimed at Republican lawmakers who have refused to accept responsibility for adequately funding public services. 

On Thursday, 27 demonstrators including Sanchez were arrested after they gathered near the offices of two leading Republican lawmakers and confronted the lawmakers about their unwillingness to fund public services and public education. The California Highway Patrol was called to the offices and arrested the demonstrators after they refused to leave.

The State of Emergency Campaign includes the state’s two largest teacher unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, The California Association of School Administrators, the California School Board Association, the California Parent Teacher Association, and other unions and education and community groups.

The campaign has declared Friday, May 13 a Not Business as Usual Day. Rallies will be held in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Francisco, and Sacramento. After the rally in Sacramento, at least 300 volunteers will stage a sit-in at the Capitol and won’t leave unless arrested. CTA will be streaming live video of this rally beginning at 4:45 p.m. (Pacific Daylight Savings Time) at www.castateofemergency.com.

Campuses take center stage in fight to defend worker rights

Back in February, the first demonstrations against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walkers proposal to ban collective bargaining took place at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when WU-Madison’s Teaching Assistant Association marched from the campus to the capital to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to gut bargaining rights for public sector workers.  Since then, campuses across the country have become center stage in the effort to protect worker rights.

Workers for Sodexo, a Paris-based multi-national food service corporation that operates dining halls at universities all over the US, have been trying to organize a union, but have met stiff resistance from the company. In April, SEIU, which has been helping Sodexo workers organize, called a Clean Up Sodexo day of action to protest company efforts to thwart its workers’ organizing campaign.  United Students Against Sweatshops and other worker support groups on campuses mobilized students to support Sodexo and other workers.

At Tulane University in New Orleans, 50 Sodexo workers held a one-day unfair labor practices strike in April to protest the company’s attempt to intimidate workers who want union recognition. “For too many of us, making ends meet is a daily struggle,” said Jeanette Smith, a Sodexo worker at Tulane who wants union recognition. Smith said that Sodexo has harassed her and other workers for being union supporters.

United Students Against Sweatshop members at Tulane supported the workers strike. “We demand that our university hold Sodexo accountable for the same labor practices Tulane University guarantees its employees,” said Lauren Elliot a USAS activist at Tulane.

The National Labor Relations Board earlier this month charged Sodexo with violating US labor law by interrogating, spying on, and firing and threatening to fire workers at Tulane who want to join SEIU.

Similar support actions took place at other campuses where Sodexo workers are trying to organize. At Emory University in Atlanta, Students and Workers in Solidarity sat-in at the office of the university’s president demanding that Emory terminate its contract with Sodexo because the company harassed and intimidated workers who tried to join SEIU. The protestors also called on Emory to adopt a labor code that ensures that campus subcontractors have the same rights as faculty and staff.

Other organizing campaigns have been going on at campuses. In April, 683 graduate students who work as research and teaching assistants at the State University of New York-Stony Brook won their first three-year contract after an organizing campaign that took ten years. They won this contract “with grassroots, movement-based unionism, said Jim McAsey, organizing director for the Communication Workers of America Local 1104, who helped the graduate students organize. “They recognized their power, organized, took direct action, and commanded respect from (their employer)”

And NYU-Poly, a premier scientific and engineering research university in New York City, research and teaching assistants recently filed a petition for union recognition. Safety concerns are the main reason that the RAs and TAs, who work with hazardous chemicals,  want a union. “A lot of times, we’re alone in our labs, supervising experiments and technical procedures,” said Manoj Ganesh, a research assistant. “But only faculty members can call for assistance to clean up a chemical spills or deal with safety issues. That’s why we need to sit down and talk.” The NYU-Poly RAs and TAs are members of the Graduate Student Organizing Committee, UAW Local 2110.

University students are also standing up for workers off campus. At the University of Texas at Austin members of United Students Against Sweatshops occupied the office of university president William Powers. USAS members met with Powers to urge him to drop UT’s affiliation with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and affiliate, instead, with the Workers Rights Consortium.  FLA is supposed to monitor factories that manufacture apparel to ensure that sweatshop conditions aren’t imposed on workers. UT makes millions of dollars a year off apparel with its trademark-protected logo on it.

USAS members told Powers that FLA is lax in its efforts to control sweatshop conditions. Students at Cornell University who also conducted an action against FLA put it a little more bluntly on their Facebook page: FLA is “a corrupt factory monitoring group that whitewashes the biggest brands like Nike and Adidas, giving them good PR at the expense of workers rights.”

After listening to the students, Powers refused to commit to making a decision, so the students staged a sit-in. “We told (Powers) that we don’t feel the urgency of this decision is shared by him, and we plan to stay in his office as long as it takes to continue negotiations,” Carson Chavaran, one of the sit-iners told KUT radio. Powers left his office and refused to come back until the students left, which they eventually did.

The spring was a busy month for students supporting workers’ rights. The actions mentioned above are just a few of the many that took place across the country. The challenge for these students will be how to maintain this momentum after the summer break.

County officials support balanced approach to solving Texas’ budget woes

Travis County (Austin) Commissioners Court on Tuesday passed a resolution urging Texas state lawmakers to take a balanced approach toward closing the state’s $23 billion budget gap instead of relying sole on cuts to services. Among other things, the resolution calls for legislators to use the state’s $9 billion reserve fund, also known as the Rainy Day Fund, to help make up the shortfall and avoid cuts to public services that will harm many county residents.

“A coalition of citizens’ groups and employees’ groups has asked (the Commissioners Court) to take a stand in favor of fully investing in the State of Texas,” said Commissioner Margaret Gomez when explaining why she was supporting the resolution. Then she added, “There’s a lot of opposition (in the Legislature) to using the Rainy Day Fund, but if it is not raining now, when is it going to be raining.”

A group of Texas State Employee Union members met last week with members of the Commissioners Court sharing information about the impact that the budget cuts will have on the local economy and asking the commissioners and County Judge Sam Biscoe to pass a resolution supporting a balanced approach to balancing the state budget.

The state Senate and House have both passed separate budgets. The House version relies solely on cuts to services to make up the $23 billion shortfall. If the House version of the budget passed, Travis County would lose

  • $122 million in Medicaid payments affecting both health care providers and the 100,000 county residents on Medicaid; 
  • $190 million in education funding; and
  • $122 million in public safety funding. 

The House budget would also eliminate 16,000 public and private sector jobs in Travis County.

The Senate’s budget relies on fewer budget cuts, but the impact would still be severe. The Senate had originally planned to use some of the Rainy Day Fund to help balance the budget, but anti-public sector, special interests groups lobbied successfully to strip Rainy Day money out of the budget.

“Our members have been trying to push back against the special interests that want to cut public services,” said Mimi Garcia, outreach director for the Texas State Employees Union. “We hope that the Travis County resolution that resulted from our member visits will be the first of many other county resolutions that will demonstrate local opposition to a cuts only strategy for balancing the budget. We want to thank County Judge Sam Biscoe for his leadership in getting this resolution passed.”

Garcia said that union members will be taking copies of the resolution to lawmakers on Wednesday and urged members to keep making telephone calls to legislators telling them to save state services by using the Rainy Day Fund, maximizing federal funding, and adopting a more equitable and realistic tax structure to balance the budget.

During discussion of the resolution, Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt called the state’s  budget shortfall. “a manufactured crisis.”  “Texas is a wealthy state,” Eckhardt said. “There’s money to fund the essential public services that are being cut. Unfortunately, the Legislature has not generated the necessary revenue to govern. The Legislature needs to get their act in order and be fiscally responsible.”

The current budget crisis is the result of two things. First, the banking crisis of 2008 has left many people jobless, which in turn has caused sales tax receipts, the state’s major source of revenue, to decline. Second, in 2006 the Legislature and Governor cut property taxes that supported education and replaced them with a new business tax that everyone agreed would not generate sufficient revenue to replace lost property tax revenue.

As the Legislature heads into its final weeks, a conference committee will negotiate the final version of the budget. Texans who oppose a cuts only approach to the budget crisis have been mobilizing the grassroots to urge lawmakers to adopt a balanced approach. Public education supporters have run ads on TV. TSEU and other public sector unions have been mobilizing members to call lawmakers.

“We must demand a better budget,” Garcia said. “TSEU has always been a voice for those who use public services and those who provide them. Cutting services, firing public sector workers, and reducing their pay and benefits will make a bad situation worse. We can’t let our voice go silent now, but whatever happens with this budget, TSEU will continue to fight for more and better public services and fair treatment for workers providing those services.”

Mexico shuts mine where explosion killed contingent workers

Mexican authorities today closed a coal mine in northern Mexico where last week a methane gas explosion killed 14 miners and hurt 15 others. The mine is owned by Beneficios Internacionales del Norte (BINSA), and many of the killed and injured workers were not registered for Social Security, which means that they were contingent workers with few if any safety rights and no job security.

The mine is located in San Juan de Salina, a small town about 90 miles from the Texas border in the state of Coahuila, on public land. Local authorities had awarded a concession in 2005 to BINSA to operate the mine. The mine opened just about a month ago. BINSA contracted with Minera El Sabino, which operates dozens of mines in Coahuila, to operate the mine.

The mine was a primitive vertical shaft, a design type that is so dangerous that it stopped being used in most countries shortly after World War II. It had no safety exits or other safety features, and workers had to buy their own safety equipment. They received no safety training, and there were no safety or health committees at the job site.

The explosion was so powerful that it blew three of the miners working 60 meters below the surface out of the mine and tore the arm off a 15 year-old who was working outside the mine entrance. A few days before the explosion, miners reported that they smelled gas in the mine, but the company took  no action.

The region where the explosion took place is known as the Carbonifera, where more than 90 percent of Mexico’s coal is mined. There are hundreds of other similar mines located in the region. Like the mine San Juan de Salina, many of the owners and operators of these mines pay scant attention to safety.

In 2006, an explosion at the nearby Pasta de Concho mine in the region killed 65 miners. The mine was owned by Grupo Mexico, a multinational manufacturing and mining company. Grupo Mexico and the Mexican government came under heavy fire for making no effort to recover the bodies of the dead miners.

Since then, 50 workers at other mines in the region have been killed. “How many more will have to die before action is taken,” said Pedro Rodriguez, a supervisor at a mine that was shut down in 2009 after an explosion killed two workers.

The explosion at San Juan de Salina wasn’t the first explosion at mines owned by BINSA. An explosion at a BINSA mine named Lulu in 2009 and another in February of this year and another in 2010 at a mine named Progress (English translation) resulted in miners’ deaths.

After the explosion at San Juan de Salina, family members of miners killed in other BINSA-owned mines gathered at company headquarters carrying signs that read “Enough Accidents” (English translation) and demanding that compensation promised by the company be paid. “I have three young children and no pension,” said Juanita Maria Cedillo, widow of a miner who lost his life in the February explosion of the Lulu mine.

 BINSA ignored a number of Mexico’s mining laws–the mine had no safety certification and it wasn’t registered with the government. “(This)  tragedy in northern Mexico stands as yet another example of safety risks and dangers by unregistered and unreliable mining installations when demand and pricing of a mineral is at a premium,” said the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions in a recent statement.

Class and race lead to health disparities

Conventional wisdom says that people’s health depends on two things: access to health care and healthy behaviors like eating a balanced, nutritious diet, exercising, not smoking, etc. But there is a growing body of research that finds another factor that’s equally, and perhaps even more, important–social factors like class and race.

About a year and one half ago, a PBS series entitled Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick explored the impact that class and race have on health. Among other things, it reported that health outcomes varied significantly among different social class.

“The series reveals a continuous health gradient tied to wealth,” reads a media statement issued by the series’ producers. “At each step down the socioeconomic ladder—from the rich to the middle class to the poor—people tend to be sicker and die sooner. The least affluent die, on average, six and a half years earlier than the rich. But even middle-income people die more than two years sooner than those at the top. Poorer smokers face higher mortality risks than rich smokers.”

Unnatural Causes shows how lack of resources and power affects people’s lives in communities across the US. One of those communities is Greenville, Michigan a town hit hard by plant closings. In 2006, the town’s largest employer, Electrolux a multi-national company based in Sweden that made washing machines in Greenville, closed its Greenville plant putting 2,700 out of work.

Shortly after the plant closing, the local hospital saw a spike in the number of people it treated for depression, attempted suicide, and domestic abuse. Two years before the plant closed, it treated about 80 people a year for these pathologies. After Electrolux closed, the caseload nearly tripled.

“These external life events (like layoffs) do get under the skin,” said Rick Price, a psychologist who has studied the consequences of job loss on workers’ lives. “They do create changes in the way our psycho-physiological system operates. They create elevated stressors–stress responses that ultimately lead to both acute and chronic health problems.”

Stressors like job insecurity, low pay, unemployment, and lack of a voice on the can job lead to increased heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. But the impact of these stressors can be mitigated by making people’s lives more secure.

Take for instance Amador Bernal, an immigrant from Mexico who works on a mushroom farm in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Bernal has lived in the US for 25 years and has never been sick enough to visit a doctor. According to the series, Bernal’s good health is related to the fact that he is protected against some of the stressors that other workers endure.

He has a low-paying job, but becasue he belongs to a union, the pay is higher than most farmworkers, he has job security, and he has access to health care for his family. Just as important, he lives in a community with an extensive support system. His network of friends and extended family play an important role in making his life more secure, and the town where he lives, which was founded by Quakers, also provides services like after school child care and tutoring and a free health clinic that help Bernal deal with the common stressors of working class life.

The stress that affects the health of working people, is much worse among African-Americans, even those with high incomes. The incidence of chronic and life threatening diseases among African-Americans is higher than among their white counterparts, and this health disparity is much more pronounced among very young African-Americans.

Among all developed countries, The US has the highest death rate for children one-year old or less. For African-Americans, the rate is double that of whites. African-American mothers are also more likely to deliver a premature baby, which contributes to their high infant mortality rate.

Neonatonologists James Collins and Richard David assert in a research paper that the stress of racism, not some innate biological characteristic, is responsible for this disparity. The paper shows that immigrants from Africa on average have babies with higher birth weights than African-Americans, but this advantage disappears after one generation as first generation African-Americans are exposed to racism.

Other researchers like Michael Lu agree that chronic stress caused by racism triggers anxiety, which cause the release of stress hormones that create an overload during pregnancy and premature births.

Unnatural causes concludes that “Americans not only need universal health care to treat illness, but also better and more equitable social and economic policies that can protect and promote health in the first place. Social policy is health policy.”

Rite Aid workers win

About 700 workers at a Rite Aid distribution warehouse in Lancaster, California celebrated a victory when their union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 26, and Rite Aid reached a tentative agreement that provides wage increases in each of the three years of the contract, improves job security, gives workers a voice in setting production standards, and provides fair health insurance premium rates.

The agreement, which must be ratified by members on May 12, culminates a five-year campaign to win union recognition and a fair contract. “We’re excited about winning this victory even if it took longer than it should,” said Carlos “Chico” Rubio, a ten-year warehouse worker, who helped negotiate the first union contract with eight other co-workers.

Rite Aid, the third largest retail drug chain in the US with stores all over the US, has been trying to make its workers pay for mistakes made by management. The company in 2006 went heavily into debt to purchase Brooks and Eckherd drug store chains and since then has been trying to cut employees’ health care coverage and speeding up production in its warehouses.

Workers at the Lancaster warehouse decided in 2006 to form a union because company speed-up policies were making work at the warehouse unsafe and exhausting. They contacted the ILWU, which then began assisting workers build their union. The campaign for union recognition and the first new contract combined traditional organizing tactics and innovative outreach efforts that built alliances with other unions and worker justice groups and put the company on the defensive.

 The workers won a union election in 2008, but the company tried to avoid signing a contract by stalling the negotiations. While Rite Aid stalled, the ILWU began a campaign to force the company to the bargaining table. The ILWU and other unions that represent Rite Aid workers in the US–the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Service Employees International Union–began communicating and sharing information about the company and its labor policies.

These communications led to a national campaign against Rite Aid that was supported by worker justice groups like Jobs with Justice and United Students Against Sweatshops. Last year, there were several national days of action against Rite Aid, which in addition to not bargaining in good faith with its Lancaster workers was trying cut health care benefits of its retail workers in Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

On Valentines Day, 17 separate demonstrations in seven states and the District of Columbia were held to protest Rite Aid’s attempt to lower their retail workers health benefits and its reluctance to bargain in good faith with its Lancaster workers.

In December at another national day of action the ILWU issued a statement accusing Rite Aid of “trying to make workers pay for management’s mistakes.” In October, the ILWU issued a research paper arguing the same point to investors and stock analysts prior to the company’s earnings report. The research paper entitled, Navigating Rough Waters — Can New Management Steer Rite Aid Back on Course?, said that ever since the acquisitions of Eckherd and Brooks, management had committed serious blunders that hurt profits and caused stock prices to fall all the while masking its incompetence with a “failed labor relations strategy” that lowered morale.

In June, the AFL-CIO tried to get the company’s annual meeting to adopt an executive compensation oversight committee because executive pay at the company was getting out of hand. The AFL-CIO reported that the then CEO of Rite Aid had a total annual compensation package worth more than $4 million despite the company’s lackluster performance.

The campaign that started in Lancaster five years ago finally ended on May 1 when the company agreed to a contract that gives a voice to workers on the job and provides for decent pay and benefits. But Rite Aid is still locked in disputes with other workers in other states. Rite Aid workers at six stores in Cleveland are out on strike because the company is trying to increase workers’ health care cost. And Rite Aid warehouse workers in San Pedro, California are still trying to win a union contract. Click here for information about these and other struggles against Rite Aid.

After being defeated, proposals to cut state worker pay keep resurfacing

Like zombie whack-a-moles, proposals for cutting Texas state employees’ pay keep springing up after they’ve hammered back into the hole where they came from. “It looks like there will be several attempts to eliminate, cut, or suspend state employee longevity pay,” said Derrick Osobase, political director for the Texas State Employees Union. “Two proposals have been defeated or sidelined, but we believe there will be others.”

Texas state employees receive $20 a month extra in longevity pay after two years of service. Then they receive an additional $20 a month every two years of service up to 40 years. Eliminating longevity pay will reduce the annual salary of a worker who has served Texas for 20 years by $2,400.

Osobase praised the mobilization efforts of union members that, so far, have kept these pay cut measures at bay but warned that they aren’t dead yet.

The proposal to eliminate longevity pay first surfaced in HB 3168. The House Committee on Government Reform and Efficiency heard testimony on the bill in early April and was set to report it out of committee. But a flurry of phone calls from TSEU members and other state employees caused the measure to remain pending in committee.

The committee on April 27 adopted a substitute to HB 3168 that deleted longevity pay cuts from the bill, but language was added that authorized state agencies and universities to furlough workers for 30 days a year. The bill was reported out of committee and referred to the House Calendars Committee, which sets the House’s daily agenda. So far, the bill remains in the Calendar Committee. 

“Furloughing state employees will effectively reduce services that people rely on, cut state employee pay by as much as 4.6 percent, and lead to higher turnover rates,” Osobase said. “Turnover in agencies that provide essential services is already high; it’s 31 percent at the state supported living centers (where 4,000 Texans with mental disabilities live), 23 percent at the Texas Youth Commission, and 25 percent at Child Protective Services. We’ll try to keep the bill bottled up in the Calendars Committee.” 

Another bill, HB 2954, would also eliminate state employee longevity pay. The Government Reform and Efficiency Committee scheduled a hearing for that bill on the day after it deleted longevity pay cuts from HB 3168. That hearing, however, was canceled. “HB 2954 has been left pending in committee and will probably not move,” Osobase said. “But there was an attempt to get a similar measure moving in the Senate.”

Sen Jane Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound, tried to amend SB 1811, a budget bill that would raise about $4 billion in non-tax revenue to help offset the state’s budget deficit. Her amendment would have suspended longevity pay for two years. The amendment was defeated in the Senate by a vote of 20 to 11.

“We can defeat these efforts to cut state worker pay,” Osobase said. “But we have to keep the pressure on. We have to keep calling lawmakers and voicing our opposition to pay cuts, and we have to get our fellow state employees who haven’t joined TSEU yet to join now.”

Collective bargaining loss not necessarily the end to voice on the job

The Oklahoma Legislature recently voted to overturn a law that gave municipal workers in the state’s largest cities the right to collective bargaining. “This is another blatant attempt to silence those with no voice to speak for them,” said Sen. Richard Lerblance, a Democrat who voted against the bill.”

“Those workers (who lost their collective bargaining rights) will not have a voice on their jobs anymore,” said Jimmy Currie, president of the Oklahoma AFL-CIO.

While the loss of collective bargaining is a huge setback for any worker,  losing that right doesn’t necessarily mean that workers have lost their voice on the job. For instance, in Texas, a right-to-work-for-less state where it’s illegal for most public workers to bargain collectively, some state employees through their union, the Texas State Employees Union, Communication Workers of America Local 6186, have managed to gain a voice on the job.

“If a united group of workers act like a union, they can have a voice on the job,” said Jim Branson, lead organizer for TSEU. “It’s not easy, but it can be done.”

TSEU, a statewide local of CWA with about 12,000 members, has managed to win some victories even though it has very few legal rights. In 2007, TSEU led a campaign that stopped the expansion of the state’s plan to privatize its health and human services. In doing so, thousands of public sector jobs were saved.

“That was a fight of organized workers, even though we weren’t a majority in the health and human services agency and we didn’t have collective bargaining contract,” Branson said. “But members mobilized like crazy. Their mobilization turned public opinion against the privatization plan, and when the contractor screwed up, the state had no choice but to fire it.”

During the campaign, TSEU members from all over the state spoke directly to their local government officials and succeeded in getting about 100 counties and municipalities to pass resolutions against the privatization plan. They also lobbied state lawmakers, marched, rallied, demonstrated, held press conferences, and spoke out at public hearings.

And during all of this, the union kept organizing. “We got workers, who had been sitting on the fence, to join the union.” Branson said. “We were able to maintain our presence in the agency even though a lot of workers were quitting in anticipation of being laid off because we never stopped organizing.”

Branson said that TSEU members have also won the right to have a collective voice in grievance hearings in agencies. “Even though we don’t have any collective bargaining agreement, the union can represent workers in grievance hearings, which means that individual workers don’t have to be on their own when faced with some kind of adverse personnel action,” Branson said. “We went to court and argued that the right to work law gives workers the right to join a union, and if workers have a right to join a union, then they have the right to be represented by the union. The court agreed.”

But it wasn’t just a court decision that gave TSEU members a voice on the job. “We have a voice on the job because we are an active and growing movement that puts a lot of emphasis on organizing and bringing new members into the union,” Branson said.

Branson said that representing workers in grievance procedures is a small part of what TSEU does.  “We have agency caucuses, made up of activists union members, who meet regularly to formulate goals and plan actions for winning those goals,” Branson said. “From time to time, members of the caucus will meet with agency heads to discuss our goals, and when the Legislature is in session, caucus members will speak directly to lawmakers. We don’t win everything we want, but we’ve had our successes.”

TSEU wouldn’t have been able to give workers a voice on the job without the support that it has received from established union organizations. “When we were just beginning, we got a lot of help from the state AFL-CIO and the CWA, our international union,” Branson said.

That support remains strong. Last April when TSEU and advocates for state service held their demonstration against state budget cuts, unions from all over the state turned out members for the rally. More than a dozen CWA locals sent members to the rally.  Unions like the autoworkers, steelworkers, sheet metal workers, and many others sent large contingents to the demonstration, which made it a huge success.